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Zwakman wins award for science fiction writing

Rejection letters turned up in his mailbox so often Schon Zwakman just plain lost count.

The 34-year-old part-time author from Cottage Grove would weave science fiction tales, submit his short stories to far-flung magazines and publishing houses, only to get the same response each time: a short, dispassionate rebuff; thanks but no thanks.

So he tried again. And again. And again.

Finally, some recognition came his way. In late August, Zwakman was honored in Los Angeles as a winner in the L. Ron Hubbard Achievement Awards for his story "Gray Queen Homecoming" that will be published in the 25th volume of Writers of the Future.

"Gray Queen Homecoming" -- a story about an odd couple of interstellar traveling companions who discover what their relationship is worth and what they're willing to sacrifice to maintain it, all while orbiting a moon -- was his eighth submission to the contest that awards recognition to up-and-coming science fiction writers and illustrators.

"This was my first (positive) response. It's definitely validating," Zwakman said last week. "If nothing, I'm improving to the level they'll pay me for my writing."

The stories Zwakman pens are speculative fiction, cosmic what-ifs that are flights of undeniable imagination. But he is an author rooted in reality, a pragmatist with a sense of practicality borne, Zwakman says, of his Naval family upbringing and his own seven-and-a-half years in the U.S. Navy.

He viewed it simply: writing was fun, but it wouldn't pay the bills.

"It was always a juxtaposition between want and necessity," Zwakman said.

Writing was a hobby, and one superfluous enough he gave it up during his time in the Navy. His biography isn't typical of most authors: he earned an engineering degree from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; there is, perhaps, one creative writing class in his past, Zwakman said.

But he took up the craft again at the urging of his family and began tapping out stories on his laptop in the quiet of his bedroom.

Some of it, he hates -- the first fiction writing he did, a novel written as a 12-year-old, he destroyed before anyone else could read it. Some of it, he loves -- or at least likes it enough to deal with rejection letter after rejection letter until finding success this year.

Zwakman and other winners were put up at the famous Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood during the last week of August and treated to intensive workshops with acclaimed science fiction authors.

Initially a little intimidating, Zwakman said the experience was "intense."

"At some point, every (author) is going to feel like they don't belong, like everyone else is a better writer," he said. "You have to get over that."

Zwakman wrote his winning story while working as a project manager for a defense firm, struggling to type out a few hundred words at a time after a long day on the job.

Now, out of work, Zwakman hopes to devote more time to his writing while he searches for another nine-to-five. Maybe that next paycheck comes from his writing, maybe it won't, he said.

Buoyed by a taste of success, Zwakman said he'd keep dreaming up his sci-fi stories and fleshing them out on the page, and entertaining readers along the way.

"It's a desire to prove yourself and share your vision with other people," he said. "And hopefully they enjoy that."